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Romelu Lukaku and the absurdity of expectation

Just seven months ago, Manchester United signed striker Romelu Lukaku from Everton for about $105 million — plus up to $21 million more in performance-based add-ons — making him the eighth-most expensive player of all time, and the second-most expensive pure striker.

Since then, Lukaku has been called a flop many times including in this space. He’s been called disappointing. And he’s been called overrated.

Lukaku is in his first season on a new team. And, for the first time, starting for a truly massive club. But never mind any of that. There was never going to be any tolerance for anything but outright dominance. Because of Lukaku’s price tag, a burden weighing down a great many players of his generation’s hyper-inflated transfer fees.

Lukaku wasn’t just supposed to be good. He was supposed to transcend the game itself and lift United back to where it once was, world dominant. He was supposed to be the final piece to a ruinously expensive collective that hasn’t come close to living up to its valuation under equally pricey manager Jose Mourinho.

Yet Lukaku is having a fine season. A decent season. Not extraordinary, but not poor by any means.

Through 26 games, Lukaku is very much on pace to match his typical Premier League goals output. He has a dozen league goals so far, and since he’s played in almost every game of the season, that suggests he’ll end with 17 or 18 goals. Indeed, he leads United in scoring in every competition but the pointless League Cup, although he hasn’t scored in six games against the rest of the Big Six.

Since joining Chelsea from Anderlecht in 2011 and becoming a starter on loan at West Bromwich Albion the following season, Lukaku scored 17 goals in 2012-13, followed by tallies of 15, 10, 18 and 25 at Everton. Last season, then, was the outlier. And a 17-goal season would simply return Lukaku to his pre-Manchester United ballpark.

You might argue that last season heralded the beginning of his prime, and that those earlier campaigns happened before he was fully formed. Expectations, therefore, ought to be higher.

But, as often, the numbers tell a different story than the widely held narrative. For one, whether you’d like to admit it or not, Lukaku plays on a more defensive-minded team with United than he did at Everton. And it bears out in his numbers. So far this season, he has taken 2.7 shots per game. Fewer than the 3.0 he posted last year and the 3.2 the season prior. It’s fewer, in fact, than in any of his full seasons as a starter.

Romelu Lukaku has been as good as could be reasonably expected this season. That’s not good enough for some. (AP)

Then there’s the fact that last year’s scoring number was wildly inflated in expected goals, relative to his career pattern. In 2014-15, Lukaku’s xG was 12.43 but he only scored 10 goals. The following year, he again underperformed his xG by more than two goals, scoring 18 times against an xG of 20.06. This season, he’s under by a goal 13.06 xG to a dozen actual goals.

Last season? Lukaku outperformed his xG by a staggering 8.33 goals. His 25 tallies made a mockery of the 16.67 goals he was expected to score given the quality of his chances. Again, that’s a credit to Lukaku and his scintillating form, extracting every last bit of opportunity from his chances. But it also suggest there was an enormous amount of luck involved in his breakout season.

If you’d bothered to look at the numbers, you’d have seen that Lukaku was far more likely to perform as he has this year than he did last season. Especially when you account for 10 percent fewer shots available to him. In fact, he’s been better in some metrics — cutting both his offside calls and dispossessions almost in half.

And he’s helped United score a great many more goals. At this stage last season, 27 games in, the Red Devils had scored 42 times. This season, they have 51 with Lukaku leading the line in all but one game. Meanwhile, his absence from Everton has been felt acutely and painfully there. A year ago, Everton had 44 goals. This season, the Toffees have merely 32.

But Lukaku was bought for a fee that was unfathomable not so long ago. And he can’t merely be competent. He has to set the world alight in every game. Soccer, at its highest levels, is a sport of hyperbole now. It’s the upshot of an era dominated by otherworldly talent like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Only the unimaginable is good enough.

A season that’s merely fine won’t do, no matter the circumstances. The treatment of Lukaku’s adequate performance is instructive of the demands placed on the uber-expensive, even if their record-setting fees have much more to do with the new economic climate in the sport than the players themselves. Lukaku’s United teammate Paul Pogba is presently wilting under that same pressure.

The fans and the pundit class feel like Pogba and Lukaku aren’t doing enough, given their staggering cost. But there might not be anything they can do can do to satisfy the criticisms and demands placed on them the day they became priceless assets.

Lukaku will never live up to his valuation. Because nobody can.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.